Sunday, April 25, 2021 | 2 a.m.
CARSON CITY — Yesenia Serrato Gonzalez watched each day as her children struggled to learn in the virtual school setting.
There simply wasn’t enough one-on-one attention to go around to all students, which was especially problematic because Gonzalez’s fifth-grader is a special needs student on the autism spectrum.
But with all learning done remotely in the Clark County School District because of the coronavirus pandemic, returning to a physical classroom wasn’t then an option.
Gonzalez, a member of the nonprofit Azulblue United by Autism, shared her story last week during a legislative hearing on Senate Bill 173, the so-called Back on Track Act. The legislation would allocate funds from the American Rescue Plan to school districts to provide free summer school for underperforming K-12 students.
CCSD charges $70 per one-half credit for Secondary Summer School for high school students. Eligible students with disabilities in the district’s Extended School Year attend summer school at no extra cost. But this bill would cover all costs — including transportation — for students in all grades. It would also expand the courses available in an attempt to help children overcome their learning loss.
A CCSD spokesperson said Friday that the School District was already exploring expanded summer school options on its own, including free, five-days-a-week summer school.
“If we do not work now to correct (learning loss), it will have implications for educational development for years to come. I have seen firsthand my sons immensely impacted by the regression that virtual learning has caused them,” Gonzalez, who also has children in the sixth and 10th grades, told the lawmakers.
Those problems, she said, range “from connectivity problems that cause absenteeism and truancy letters to be mailed to my home that threaten the possibility of being defined as a habitual truant … to grading errors, extreme anguish and mental distress, particularly (for) my special-needs son.”
The bill, which has already passed unanimously through the state Senate, has a long list of sponsors, but Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblywoman Natha Anderson, D-Sparks, have taken the lead on the measure. In Thursday’s hearing, Dondero Loop applauded families and educators for their work during the pandemic but stressed virtual learning could lead to long-term ramifications for students.
“The simple fact is that in-person instruction cannot be replicated,” Dondero Loop said. “We know that learning loss because of the pandemic is a crisis that threatens to set many of our kids back, leaving a widened achievement gap in children behind.”
Schools districts and the State Public Charter School Authority would be tasked with submitting catch-up plans to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert for approval.
The plans would make use of the $1.1 billion sent to Nevada schools by the American Rescue Plan, a massive COVID-19 relief bill signed into law March 11 by President Joe Biden. The legislation requires 20% of education funding to be reserved for learning loss programs.
The bill has a long list of students defined as at-risk, including those in households that lack the resources to access services to address possible loss of learning; juniors or seniors in high school who are credit deficient; pre-K or kindergarten students; students in first through third grades who are deficient in reading or mathematics; students with disabilities; chronically absent students; and middle and high school students who are deficient in science, technology, engineering, arts or mathematics.
Special-needs students in the Clark County School District already can attend summer school for free if their individualized education program, or IEP, includes that service. It could not be ascertained from Gonzalez’s testimony if her son qualified for the service.
Education advocates testified overwhelmingly in favor of the measure, and no one testified in opposition to the bill Thursday.
Marie Neisess, the president of the Clark County Education Association, testified in neutral on the bill, stating that while the organization supports the proposal, measures for student learning loss would not go far enough without new, permanent state revenue streams.
Democratic members of Nevada’s congressional delegation, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, along with Reps. Dina Titus and Susie Lee, have written in support of the bill.
“As a former educator, I know that any reduction in time spent teaching can have detrimental and long-lasting effects on students,” Titus wrote. “This learning loss has a disproportionate and unacceptable impact on students of color which, if left unaddressed, could have significant impacts on their life-long earnings.”
The committee did not vote on the legislation Thursday, and no further hearings on it have been scheduled. Unless the bill is granted an exemption, it faces a May 14 deadline to be passed out of committee or it will die without being voted upon by the full Assembly.
For Gonzalez, the bill would help students get back on track after an unprecedented year.
“We cannot allow any more children to fall behind and to become part of another statistic,” Gonzalez said. “Our children are the future of our great state.”